I Don't Expect Applause
This Wednesday my piece What is Left is being performed at the Karma Bird House. I am feeling a fair amount of trepidation. The dancers will be wonderful, but will the choreography? The idea of public feedback is daunting, as well as this feeling that my piece will be the odd one out; classical, but old fashioned; too long and slow... boring. Yes, I think it is beautiful, but what do I know... so I think of Pema Chodron and one of her Lojong lessons: Don’t Expect Applause. It is a meant as a lesson in being and acting with compassion and generosity with no expectation, but I am twisting it for my purposes these next few days. I will give it my best, expect no applause, and just appreciate the moment.
Which leads me back to one of my funniest and most vivid childhood moments. It was the summer of 1971, and I had probably just turned or was about to turn 7. My parents had family over (not related in the strictest sense, but family of the heart). My cousins Nancy and Vivian were over with their parents, my Aunt and Uncle (and my moms best friend to this day, Flor, (a scrappy 90, to my moms almost 89), and a couple of other non related people who I can’t for the life of me figure out why they were there, but I digress.
The kids were in the basement. It was an epic 1971 basement. Blue and white checked floors, blue vinyl with some sort of sparkle vinyl built in bench/ storage seating, a stand alone bar, and most importantly my Kennar Close and Play*. The close and play was a red plastic take along record player, which I had received from Santa the year before. ("Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head", and "Sugar Sugar" were the first two 45’s in my shocking pink record holder*. ) The Close and Play, this gift of portable music, might be the best gift I have ever received, and it was a feature player on that hot summer night.
Now this was 1971. When I write kids were in the basement, I mean unless someone was bleeding heavily we were left alone with kool aid and pretzels. We were listening to music and dancing, and my sister wanted "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog"... again and again. The real name of the song was "Joy to the World". But in our house it was just Bullfrog. My sister just three, was obsessed with that Bullfrog. She loved it in the way only an older toddler Loves something, obsessively and to the exclusion of everything else. Honestly, it was easiest to just keep playing it. Nancy was a year older at 8 than both Vivi and I at 7, none of us were strictly speaking great ages for babysitting a 3 year old, so we just gave in to Bullfrog on repeat. And so it began...
"Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" became my first big piece of choreography, it was my first experience with “if you listen to a song long enough, the music will tell you what to do.“ I listened and we worked for hours and I believe I used almost the entire song. We started with our backs to the audience (somethings never change :) ), and in a 4 count canon peeled around one by one and froze in a pose much like Diana ross and the supremes in "Stop in the Name of Love", four girls, four dramatic turns and a unison arm move, then some forward and back step touch disco moves happened and we were off. My sister, (who was ridiculously cute), started the canon, and in my memory totally kept up with us and killed the choreography. We were sweating in that basement, but were soon ready to perform this masterpiece. I included a big finish, lifts with my tiny sister, disco partner work; it ran the gambit from my own ballet class to American bandstand and the Great SoulTrain.
But this was also 1971... so there was no repeat performance for recording purposes. The parents headed back upstairs, and my mom gave me a little hug and whispered in my ear, “that was really good, but don’t come upstairs again”. I got the message, you did a great job, now stop bugging us, this is our time. I remember feeling a little hurt, but then I heard the adults laughing and saying how good it was as they walked back upstairs, and I felt really proud of myself. Part of me would love to see that performance, but nothing could match my memory of it, or the Imagined power of my sister hitting her pose with the panache of a vaudeville veteran when the immortal words Jeremiah was a bullfrog sounded. It’s a lesson that stays with me; if I love the music the movement will come, don’t expect audience adoration and there will probably always be one dancer who doesn’t want to be there. These lessons hold up and I will feel so so lucky on Wed, because both my dancers will dance with everything they have... they both channel the love for movement that little Amy exhibited in her debut performance.
And as for my mom, she appreciates my work now. Though she has occasionally has asked if I ever do anything happy, she feels proud that she paid for all those dance lessons that enabled me to do work that I love. And as for Joy to the World/ Bullfrog, Billboard Number one, in 1971? Well, it's still bringing the joy.
Christmas Eve, 2018, parking super early for Mass at St. Francis in Winooski, (my mom goes to church almost every day, so there is no way we are not a arriving early enough to get a seat). The glitch, I won’t get out of the car until I hear the end of California Gothic* (give yourself the gift of this 15 minutes!) on the Moth radio hour. It is funny, moody, touching and set in 1970’s California... the speaker is capturing the time so perfectly; there is no way I am getting out of the car. My mother is seriously displeased. It is the birth of Jesus vs NPR. I am determined to win, I just refuse to move. And so I win, but it becomes clear we both do. The speaker finishes and "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog" rings out in all of its ridiculous glory. In that moment it sounds like the best Christmas Carol ever. I look at my 88 year old mom, and she is smiling, really smiling, and she says "I don’t know why, but I have the happiest memories of you kids and that song."
Sometimes, you get the applause.